A third Palestinian Intifada?

By: Jacob Høigilt, senior researcher, Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

The level of conflict in Jerusalem is now so high that more and more people are talking of a “Third Intifada” – a new popular uprising by Palestinians against the Israeli occupation – that would be centred in Jerusalem. In fact, there is little to suggest that a Third Intifada is imminent, but it does seem likely that there will be an increase in violence and unrest in Jerusalem in the future. In this article I will attempt to explain why. There are two immediate reasons for the recent increase in political violence among Palestinian Jerusalemites. First, there was the reaction to the killing in the West Bank in June 2014 of three Israeli teenagers. In revenge, a group of Jewish young men abducted a 16-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem and killed him in a particularly brutal manner. This killing, and the suppression by the Israeli authorities of the ensuing demonstrations, brought tensions to boiling point. Second, right-wing Israelis have been making renewed demands for Jews to be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount, which is also the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam. Palestinians see these demands as a clear move towards full Jewish control over their holy site. There is a precedent with which all Palestinians are well acquainted. In Hebron, where the Israelis forcibly divided the Tomb of Abraham into two parts many years ago, Palestinian Muslims have had drastically reduced access to the holy site. These factors alone, however, are not adequate explanation for why some Palestinian individuals are driving their cars into people waiting at tram stops or using meat cleavers to attack Jews who are at prayer. The deeper reason is Israel’s long-term policy of occupation. Israel wants a united Jerusalem, including occupied East Jerusalem, as the country’s capital. Logically enough, Israel is implementing policies to realize this goal. It is these policies that are leading Jerusalem’s Palestinians to become increasingly frustrated and desperate. Through measures including the construction of their separation barrier, Israel is isolating Palestinian Jerusalemites from the rest of the Palestinian population. The result has been the political disempowerment and fragmentation of a Palestinian society that was previously well organized. In addition, the Israeli government is attempting to change the demography of East Jerusalem. Today approximately 200,000 Jewish settlers live in East Jerusalem, and the Israeli authorities are using artificial legal devices to evict Palestinians who do not have the title deeds to their homes and to demolish homes that that were built “without the proper permits”. One would have to be rather naive not to realize that this is a step in the slow process of ethnic cleansing that is taking place in East Jerusalem. But the most important factor for understanding the violence that we are seeing in Jerusalem today is perhaps the fact that the municipal authorities in Jerusalem are leaving the Palestinians to look after themselves. Israel has (illegally) incorporated East Jerusalem into the Municipality of Jerusalem, which has an obligation to provide all its residents with the same municipal services. These services are not being provided in East Jerusalem. Infrastructure, sanitation, schools and social services are all in an appalling condition in the Palestinian areas of Jerusalem, while Jewish areas are well maintained. These deficiencies pale, however, in comparison with the almost total absence of law enforcement in East Jerusalem. The Israeli police seldom concern themselves with East Jerusalem, apart from cracking down on protesters. As a result, organized criminals, often with links to powerful families, enjoy considerable freedom. Poor access to schooling, criminality, violence and insecurity are everyday problems for many Palestinians in East Jerusalem, resulting in a general brutalization of society. And all Palestinians know where the responsibility lies: with the Israeli occupying power. In reality it is not so strange that some people’s anger boils over in such a situation, even though it is a tragic irony that the most recent victims were Orthodox Jews, a section of the Israeli population who are far less fervent supporters of occupation than many others. But are these gruesome episodes indicative of a new popular uprising? The answer is most likely no. For several years now there have been almost daily non-violent demonstrations in East Jerusalem. In addition, there has been no lack of confrontations between demonstrators and police. But a difference today from the First and Second Intifadas is that there is currently no Palestinian leadership with either the will or the ability to lead a mass uprising, and this lack is particularly obvious in isolated East Jerusalem. Despite the tireless efforts of certain organizations and activist groups, resistance is fragmented, local and poorly coordinated. Instead of a Third Intifada, we will most likely see an increase in isolated attacks on Israeli Jews, as has been the trend recently. Such attacks do not help the Palestinian fight against Israeli occupation, instead giving Netanyahu’s government new rhetorical grounds to defend its policy. The situation in Jerusalem is often depicted as two ethnic groups fighting for the same city. But this is not the case. The Palestinians are fighting for the right to continue to live in the part of Jerusalem where they have their roots (the East), while Israel wants the whole city – West and East – to itself. Accordingly Jerusalem will continue to be a city filled with violence and hatred for the foreseeable future, while Israel’s policy of colonization gradually takes its course.